BEIJING -- Think back to the end of last summer to another warm, humid place. Team USA is leaving Osaka, Japan, and the world championships of track and field with its stars clearly in order.
Four of them are Tyson Gay (with victories in the 100- and 200-meters and the 4x100-meter relay), Allyson Felix (with her second consecutive 200-meter title and two relay golds), Jeremy Wariner (with his third consecutive global title -- one Olympics and two world championships -- in the 400 meters) and Lauryn Williams (three consecutive global medals in the 100 meters). There are others, but these four are on anybody's short list.
All competed on Thursday at the Bird's Nest. All emerged as symbolic of America's exasperating track performance. On the clock:
7:31 p.m. --Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica (where else?) scorched Felix and everybody else in the 200 meters, running a personal best of 21.74 and leaving Felix digging deep for a silver medal in 21.93.
For anyone who has been watching the rounds -- and for that matter, the entire season -- it was not an upset. Felix has been more than respectable, but she has not been the smooth, dominant runner that she was in 2007, when she owned Campbell-Brown at the worlds in 21.81.
7:44 -- Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie of the Bahamas, who finished seventh in the 200, said, "The sport is getting closer and closer to being drug-free. There's no one person who is guaranteed to win.'' Pressed, she says this is a reference to Marion Jones, and it seems astounding that non-U.S. female sprinters are still bitter that Jones dominated their sport from 1997-2001, but maybe it's understandable.
Ferguson-McKenzie has another thought on U.S. sprinters. "All the girls are really nice,'' she says. "But in my opinion, when it comes to the relays, there is not so much gelling.'' These words will soon be prophetic.
7:55 -- Felix walks into the media interview area. She smiles and says, "It would be ungrateful for me to say I'm disappointed with a silver medal when so many people don't even get the opportunity. I'm going to hold my head up and be proud of it.'' A few minutes later she admits, "I don't think I can be thrilled, because my expectations were so high. But I can't be ungrateful.''
Felix has had a busy year. In one May week, she traveled to Detroit for the funeral of her boyfriend's father and then returned to graduate from USC. In July, she flew round trip from Europe to California to serve as maid of honor at a close friend's wedding. The wear and tear was obvious in her running. But she says she was not compromised in any way and tosses off no other excuses. It is typically classy work by Felix, who seldom does the wrong thing under pressure.
Her family stands nearby: father Paul, mother Marlean and older brother Wes. They are extraordinarily close. I first met them all in the spring of '03, when Allyson was a gifted senior at Los Angeles Baptist High. Allyson leaves the media area and then emerges to meet her family. She falls into her mother's arms, sobbing for five, long minutes with her head resting on her mom's shoulder. Her coach, Bobby Kersee, takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes. When she leaves for drug-testing, I talk to her father.
"She's been looking forward to this for four years,'' he said. "And she's had a lot of success along the way. But right now she's disappointed. It's not easy.''
8:23 -- A roar goes up in the basement media area. (I have a sensational seat in the stadium press tribune, four rows up from the track, dead on the finish line, but sometimes the track meet unfolds so quickly that writers spend long stretches in the dungeon interviewing and watching the meet on distant screens. Stinks, but what can you do?). On a TV monitor, a heat of the men's 4x100-meter relay has just ended and U.S. sprinters can be seen walking dejectedly down the track.
Replays follow. The third-leg runner, Darvis Patton, seems to put the stick in -- or very nearly in -- anchor Gay's hand. But Gay doesn't grab it and the sticks drops to the track. End of relay. It is the fifth time in the last 12 global championships (worlds and Olympics) the U.S. has failed to finish the four-by-one, either in a heat or a final. Track writers almost avert their gaze when the relays begin.
Gay, who failed to make the final of the 100 meters after suffering a hamstring injury at the U.S. trials July 5, takes the blame. "I think I felt it hitting my hand,'' says Gay. "But it was hitting right here.'' He point to his lower wrist. "I didn't feel it all the way in my hand. I'll take the blame. They got the stick around to me and I let them down.''
Seconds later, Patton said, "That's Tyson Gay. Very humble guy. It's my job as the incoming runner to get the stick to the next guy.''
Gay adds, "He's just being nice. It was my fault.''
Not to be outdone in the mea culpa game, U.S. head coach Bubba Thornton points to his shoulders and says, "You put it right here.''
Let's be honest here: Five for 12 in relay blunders is outrageous. It's probably true the U.S. doesn't practice enough stick-passing, and coaches in the past have made some terrible decisions. But everyone on the team has been running relays for years. It's just not that difficult. Later in the night, NBC analyst AtoBoldon suggested to me that the U.S. wasn't passing safe enough for an opening round, extending receivers deep into the exchange zone. And four other teams DNFed the first heat, as well.
As for Gay, he said, "This has been the total opposite of last year.''
8:52 -- In a semifinal heat of the women's 4x100-meter relay, Torri Edwards and Williams botch the final exchange and the baton falls again to the track. Williams picks it up and runs though the finish long after every other team is done -- a metaphor in motion. Never have both U.S. sprint relays failed to finish in the same Games. Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie's words come right back to mind.
For the women, this was a second consecutive DNF, both involving Williams. In Athens four years ago, Williams failed to get the second exchange from Jones and ran out of the exchange zone. "People want to assess blame to me, that's OK, I'll take it,'' Williams said. (For the record, many people did blame her for running away from Jones in '04, but it's more than possible that Williams left at the right time, but that a chubby, drug-free Jones died at the end of a 100-meter split and couldn't get the stick to Williams).
On this night, the Edwards-Williams exchange looked like it was going to come off easily. Edwards reached and put the stick in Williams's hand ... and then the stick was on the track. "I don't know what happened,'' Williams said. "My hand was there, the stick was there. The stick had a mind of its down. It wasn't my fault, it wasn't Torri's fault. Maybe [the stick] had a little bug in there and it jumped out.''
This was Lauryn Being Lauryn, four days after finishing fourth in the 100 meters, behind Jamaica's sweep. She was trying to lighten a tense situation and it worked. People laughed. But still: The relay was an embarrassment. See above. Just get the stick around.
9:24 -- Gun goes off in the 400 meters. Wariner, who lost to LaShawn Merritt in the U.S. Olympic Trials, but beat him twice since then in Europe, floats down the backstretch. The buzz is that he's trying to take down Michael Johnson's nine-year-old world record of 43.18.
9:24:32 -- Wariner is doing rigor mortis like some high school kid who is running his first 400. "Those last 50 meters hurt,'' he will tell me later. Merritt rolls past him and through the line in a brilliant personal best of 43.75 seconds, which knocks .21 seconds from Merritt's PR and makes him the fifth-fastest 400-meter runner in history.
Wariner suffers through the final strides, easing across the line. Media will debate whether he quit at the finish. My view: He was toast and beaten into second place. But behind him, David Neville gives a huge effort and dives across the line to just beat Chris Brown of the Bahamas for the bronze, and a U.S. sweep.
Wariner gets angry at a question from NBC and initially blows off the U.S. media waiting for him, He did the same thing after finishing second at the trials in Eugene, Ore. Eventually, he comes back and talks. He is asked about the U.S. struggles. "We're out there competing,'' he says. "Other athletes are just running fast. Y'all can't say we're not competing to our best.''
It's a fair answer. Sometimes you get beat.
Later Wariner tells SI.com, "Some people think my career is over, or my domination is over. This was just one championship, one race. Next year, there is a world championship, and there's another Olympics in four years.
Wariner's struggle aside, the U.S. 400-meter sweep is a bandage on a nasty wound. In the last event on the program, David Payne and David Oliver take silver and bronze behind the unassailable Dayron Robles in the 110-meter hurdles. That would be another bandage at the close of a long night. And a long Olympics for four athletes who had seemed destined for much, much more.